School governance 101, 102, and 103

While I’m still digesting the papers and footage from the recent day-long Rethinking Education Governance for the 21st Century
symposium (sponsored by Fordham and the Center for American Progress), I
want to call your attention to some intriguing outlier governance
events and stories.

First, on NPR recently,
CNN host Fareed Zakaria said that the Founders were so “obsessed with
the problem of absolute power” that they created an unworkable
government. “The system in Washington is so unwieldy that in order to
get everybody to agree, [it] would seem to take a miracle and would
perhaps take decades.” Is that good or bad?  (Checker and Mike
suggest that, as far as education governance goes, we’ve got to return
more powers to the states.) On the same NPR show, former Congressman
Mickey Edwards argued that the problem is not the Constitution – and the
governance structure it created – but the party system. Sure, you can
create an efficient government, like China, said Edwards, “the people
just get in the way.” He continued: “Well I think that’s nonsense. We
don’t need to change to a system that gives more power to the top…What
you want is more power in the people. You have to figure out what’s
denying them that power, whether it’s the political primary system [or]
whether it’s the redistricting system; figure out what the problems are
and solve the problems.”

Second, at yesterday’s Manhattan Institute symposium celebrating Marcus Winters’ new book – Teachers Matter: Rethinking How Public Schools Identify, Reward, and Retain Great Teachers
guests were treated to some provocative governance proposals about the
profession – and not just from Marcus, who suggests that “how we
structure government to get the best out of our teachers” is one of
education’s highest priorities. Chris Cerf, acting Commissioner of
Education in New Jersey, and a panelist at the event, repeated some of
what he said
at the TBFI/CAP conference; i.e. that the hardest thing now is getting
the political will to change the policies that prevent successful
education. “We’ve got to become radicals,” he told the Harvard Club
audience of what seemed to be mostly reform sympathizers. Encouraging “a
thought exercise,” Cerf asked the audience what the chances were of
state legislators choosing “sound public policy” over “political
interests.” “Five percent?” one audience member suggested. “That’s
optimistic,” said Cerf to much laughter. He suggested that reformers
have to create a climate in which sound public policy is, in fact, in a
policymaker’s political interest.

Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence, made a plea that
teachers “have a say in governance questions.” (Teacher unions were
variously characterized as “the elephant in every room,” “necessary
evil,” and “not meaningful partners” by speakers. Stone suggested that
the unions aren’t really representing the voices of active teachers, but
rather retirees and non-active teachers, which comprise some 70 percent
of union membership.) Seth Andrew, superintendent of Democracy Prep
charter schools, echoed the sentiments of the other panelists when he
said that there were too many “barriers to entry” for folks who might
make good teachers. He also pointed out that the parent voice is all too
often left out. “We’re called Democracy Prep, not Generic Prep,” he
pointed out. Finally, Joel Klein, the keynoter, said that he now
believes that the key leverage point for education reform is choice.
“Kids with the greatest need,” he said, “have no choice.” Klein made
several references to his favorite baseball team. “Can you imagine the
Yankees with LIFO?” he asked, referring to the Last In First Out system
of dismissing teachers. “They would have had an even worse season.”

Finally, I’ll highlight the recent AARP Bulletin
just for the cover headline: “How air conditioning, cable news and
Thomas Jefferson created the mess in Washington.” It’s worth getting old
just to see this one.

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